THE ODD COUPLE: GOING THROUGH THE UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN RED BULL AND FOOTBALL

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When a football club promotes and utilises young, homegrown players, there is often a great love for that side. Southampton, Benfica and Ajax – all clubs which retain a selling club status and develop their own youngsters extensively and are often beloved for this method of player production in the age of extortionate transfer fees. And yet, in the case of RasenBallsport Leipzig – RB Leipzig for short, Red Bull Leipzig commonly – there is a significant cloud hanging over their heads.

German football operates proudly under the 50+1 rule, meaning that the clubs – and by extension, the fans – will always retain a majority of their own voting rights. Commercial investors are seen as detrimental to the integrity of the game and could possibly remove the importance of fans, making them mere consumers. The 50+1 rule bans clubs from being majority owned by commercial investors and this issue is the reason RB Leipzig have quickly become the most hated club in Germany. Red Bull’s football portfolio has encompassed five separate projects since its beginning, but how successful have their investments been and what issues have they created for football’s image?

For Red Bull, sporting investments are commonplace. Extreme sports events are often sponsored by Red Bull, the Red Bull Air Race is popularly seen across social media channels, and they expanded into ownership with the purchase of a Formula 1 team in 2005. The Red Bull Racing Team took over from Jaguar, later also purchasing Toro Rosso as a feeder team for young drivers, and have become one of the leading names in the sport.

The energy drink conglomerate’s first involvement in football also came back in 2005, with the takeover of Austrian side SV Austria Salzburg. Salzburg were a club with a proud history, founded back in 1933 as a merger of two existing sides, and were three times winners of the Austrian Bundesliga when the Red Bull investment came.

The initial takeover talks were met with a largely positive response from Salzburg fans, especially with the club entering into some financial trouble at the turn of the millennium. That positive outlook began to wane shortly after the takeover, however, with Red Bull attempting to take away all aspects of the clubs history. Many fans of the Austrian side felt as though Red Bull’s intention was to create an entirely new football club, and their fears were certainly credible.

Shortly after taking control, SV Austria Salzburg no longer existed having been rebranded as FC Red Bull Salzburg. More than just a renaming occurred, with the distinctive purple and white uniforms worn by Salzburg previously changed to a red, blue, yellow, and white scheme in order to replicate the branding of the energy drink. Whilst a rebranding was to be expected as club ownership represents a wide-scale marketing campaign for Red Bull, the true problems were felt with the rejection of the history of Salzburg prior to 2005.

According to club officials around the time of the takeover, they wanted to create a completely blank canvas for the club to operate on.  On the official club website, it stated the founding date for the club as being in 2005, the moment of Red Bull’s ownership. It was a move that angered fans of the club, having witnessed a successful spell during the nineties erased from the club’s history and the Austrian Football Association ordered the club to restore the 1933 founding date onto club information. Even with the changing of the date reverted, the original decision caused outrage amongst the long-standing fans of the Salzburg club, creating an early friction between the new owners and the club supporters groups.

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Much like the situation with MK Dons and Wimbledon in England, the newly created club was not universally loved and a section of the supporters broke away to form their own club that would start again at the bottom tier of Austrian football. The “Violet-Whites”, a supporters group determined to retain the clubs history, refused to accept the changes that had been made by Red Bull and formed a new club, one which played in the traditional purple and white of Salzburg and bore the original logo. The new club reached the second tier of Austrian football back in 2015/16 but has since dropped back down to the fourth tier of the league structure.

The decision to take ownership of a large Austrian team was a logical one for Red Bull and one that has paid dividends. As a first step into football, there was always a need to take control over a side that had the potential to be immediately transformed into a powerhouse and what better location than your home country.  Since the first season as Red Bull Salzburg in 2005/06, the Austrian side has won the Austrian Bundesliga nine times, finishing second in the other four. Five Austrian Cup titles have also been won, including four consecutive from 2014-2017, all of which came as part of domestic doubles. Success within Austrian football has been relatively straight-forward but they have yet to take the next step on the continental stage.

A remarkable run to the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2017/18 represented the best European campaign for the Salzburg side since the UEFA Cup final of 1993/94, including strong victories over Borussia Dortmund and Lazio, but the side is best known across Europe for its continued run of failing to make the Champions League group stages.

Since the 2013/14 season, Salzburg have alternated between exiting the competition at the Third Qualifying Round and the Playoff Round. Fenerbahçe defeated them 4-2 over two legs in 2013/14, and consecutive defeats to Sweden’s Malmö FF followed, both of which had seen the Austrian side achieve victory in the home first leg before surrendering that in the away trip.

The last three seasons have been even more dramatic, with extra time and away goal defeats being common. Against Dinamo Zagreb, Salzburg held a 2-1 aggregate lead heading into the final three minutes of the return leg before conceding a late equalizer and going on to lose the match in extra time. The following season brought a third qualifying round match-up against another Croatian side in Rijeka, but a 1-1 home leg draw was followed by a 0-0 one away and Salzburg had been eliminated on the away goals rule. The season ultimately brought a strong European run and hopes were high for the current season. After a 0-0 draw in Belgrade against Red Star, two goals from Israeli striker Moanes Dabour saw Salzburg in a comfortable position. The pressure finally told, however, and Salzburg imploded, conceding twice in a two-minute spell and fell once more before the group stages.

The plan for Red Bull was to make Salzburg one of the biggest clubs in Europe, but their failure to reach the group stages of its premier competition has seen that venture fall short. Small-scale success has seemingly been the mantra for Red Bull’s other high-profile venture, with the New York Red Bulls always seeming to fall short as well.

Almost a year after their announcement of the takeover in Salzburg, Red Bull added to their footballing portfolio by taking control over Major League Soccer side MetroStars. The franchise was a well-known outfit in America due to them being a founding member of the league back in 1994 but had struggled for success, with only a single U.S. Open Cup final appearance to their name prior to the takeover. In the exact same way as they had with Salzburg, Red Bull changed the clubs colours, logo and name immediately to attempt to give the side a fresh start, one revolving entirely around Red Bull.

The decision to invest in an MLS franchise, a league which is not as widely followed as football leagues in other countries, came from the belief that Red Bull CEO Dieter Mateschitz had about the coming growth of the MLS. Mateschitz explained that ‘soccer is just about to make a big breakthrough in the United States media’, further proof that, for Red Bull, football is just a mass media strategy and an effective one.

The same issues were visible with the New Jersey-based club as the Salzburg side, with supporters not viewing the near eradication of all previous history with much kindness. One of the major issues that arose with the new branding of the team came from the complete removal of the “New Jersey” element of the name. The franchise had initially gone by the name “New York/New Jersey MetroStars” but dropped the location aspect a few years later. Going by “New York” and not “New Jersey” where the team is actually based provides economic benefits, but served to anger the fans who supported the team from New Jersey.

Prior to the current 2018 season, the Red Bulls had made the MLS Playoffs in all bar one of the twelve seasons in which they have been owned by the energy drink company. There have been four Eastern Conference victories as well as two supporters’ shields – the trophy awarded to the team with the best record across both Eastern and Western conferences. But, much like the fans of Salzburg, there is a sense amongst the fanbase that the team have not earned as much success as they would hope for in the trade-off for being owned by Red Bull.

For the eleven Playoff appearances, the Red Bulls have only reached the Finals on a single occasion, losing 3-1 to the Columbus Crew in 2008. Even the 2015 Supporters’ Shield-winning side containing the goals of Bradley Wright-Phillips and talents of Matt Miazga could only manage a semi-finals appearances, losing to the Columbus Crew once again, 2-1 on aggregate.

In much the same way as the Salzburg side has failed to reach the group stages of the Champions League, the Red Bulls have endured similar struggles when facing teams from their continent. In their first season in the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League, the Red Bulls struggled to gain any momentum, with a single victory against Salvadoran side FAS to show for their efforts. The Red Bulls proved a much tougher side in their next attempt, going unbeaten against Antigua from Guatemala and Alianza from El Salvador, winning both home games and drawing their away matches. A quarter-final tie against fellow MLS side the Vancouver Whitecaps awaited, but The Metros failed to click into gear again, following up a 1-1 draw at home with a 2-0 defeat in Vancouver.

The 2018 CONCACAF Champions League saw a restructure with the removal of the group stages making the tournament a straight knockout event. It led to the Red Bull’s best showing to date. A Round of 16 match-up against Honduran side Olimpia was a tricky first test for the American side, but a 1-1 draw in the away leg was followed by a confident 2-0 return, sending the club through to a quarter-final tie against Mexican outfit Tijuana.

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A potentially tricky tie, with American sides historically struggling against teams from Mexico, was effectively ended in the first leg in Mexico, with star striker Wright-Phillips securing a 2-0 victory and a strong advantage before the return game. An early goal for the Mexicans brought the tension levels higher, but it was met with a swift response and the Red Bulls ran out 3-1 winners on the night, securing an easy passage through.

Courtesy of their better record through the tournament, the Red Bulls got the advantage of hosting the second leg of their semi-final against Guadalajara – commonly known as Chivas – an advantage that they needed to make the most of after losing 1-0 away from home. Despite having 18 shots, nine of which were on target, the Red Bulls were unable to find a way past Chivas goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota and once again fell short in their quest to win a major trophy that their fans demanded.

Whereas both Salzburg and the Red Bulls have experienced some levels of success since their respective takeovers, the same cannot be said of Red Bull’s most ambitious project, that of Red Bull Brasil.

The move down into South America was a shrewd one from a business and marketing perspective for Red Bull. Brazil, the largest South American country, contains a population of over 200 million and is a nation that is obsessed with football. The Brazilian love affair with football has been explored on many occasions, and the passion and fervour with which the country supported the national side during the 2014 World Cup certainly outlines this fact. What better way to market your energy drink to a new market than appealing directly to their favourite sport in the most populous state, São Paulo.

The Red Bull Brasil project, founded in 2007, has not produced success on the football pitch similar to that of the previous two, struggling to make it through the Brazilian leagues. Brazilian football has a unique structure in that most teams compete in two separate league systems, a state and national one. Teams need to progress through their state championships in order to be given a chance in the lowest national league, Serie D, from where they have the chance to rise through the leagues once more.

For Red Bull Brasil, it has been a long road towards national football. Having spent seven seasons battling towards the top level of the São Paulo state championships, the team were given their first chance to appear in Serie D in the 2015 season. They ultimately finished fourth and last in their group, 26th overall, and did not participate again the following season. Having consolidated their position in the Campeonato Paulista – São Paulo’s top state championship – and returned to Serie D action in the 2017 season, Red Bull Brasil have steadied themselves into a comfortable side. Comfort may be nice, but it is far from the ideal for the Austrian company and they will be hoping for more progression in the near future.

Red Bull’s biggest struggle in football so far came with their failed African academy, Red Bull Ghana. The aim for the academy was to help produce players in Ghana that could be moved to play for Salzburg and then sold on for profit. It was essentially a foreign academy system more than a bonafide football club.

The experiment with this style of ownership never went to plan for the company, with the side only lasting six years before being merged together with Feyenoord’s academy in 2014 to form the West African Football Academy. Before its closure, the academy did produce a couple of players that have moved to Austria in Samuel Tetteh and Gideon Mensah, the latter of whom plays for FC Liefering, a feeder team for Salzburg.

The most well-known Red Bull project was the one that was the last to form and the one that has caused the most public outrage. SSV Markranstädt were a football club playing in the fifth tier of German football and prior to the 2009/10 were taken over by Red Bull, thus creating RB Leipzig. Unlike Salzburg, Red Bull opted for a smaller team with a limited following, thereby minimising the initial backlash that they would face.

The prohibition of clubs in Germany to be named after commercial entities stopped the newly founded club being directly part of the Red Bull brand, but a rebranding still occurred and the club is visibly a part of the wider Red Bull family. The new name, RassenBallsport Leipzig, was used so that the club could use the RB initials, keeping the corporate identity they are so desperate to promote.

The 50+1 rule that controls many aspects of German football culture stipulates that no decision must be made without the clubs, and the fans, retaining a controlling interest in those decisions. To circumvent this issue, Leipzig set the membership fees at an annual rate of €800 and kept the ability for the management board to reject an application for membership without notice. All 17 board members are therefore employees of Red Bull. This meant that Leipzig would be within the rules set forward by German football but still retain a controlling interest in the running of the club.

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Whilst being clever business savvy, Red Bull’s actions have been met with an emphatic response from opposing fans. Borussia Dortmund fans boycotted their away match at Leipzig in protest at the way the club was run, an action they repeated during their Europa League tie with Salzburg with the money that would have otherwise been spent being donated to the reformed Salzburg. Fans of Union Berlin went one step further and coordinated a 15-minute silence ahead of their 2015 clash with RB Leipzig, creating a funeral-like atmosphere to bemoan the death of football to commercialisation.

RB Leipzig have risen through the leagues at a rapid rate, rising from fifth to first tier of German football in just seven seasons. Their first season in the Bundesliga was a roaring success on the pitch, with the team finishing in second place and qualifying for the Champions League. Whilst good for their footballing interests, it created a potential problem for their ownership interests.

UEFA forbids clubs who are owned by the same ownership group from competing against each other in their competitions. It is a part of the reason that the City Football Group – the group with the controlling interest in Manchester City – have created clubs in different continents in New York and Melbourne City FC. With both Leipzig and Salzburg being in contention for qualification for the Champions League in 2017/18, Red Bull had to restructure the running of the Austrian side meaning that they lost control over the club, remaining as just a sponsor. It was a clear sign that Leipzig were the project that represented the most important club in the Red Bull portfolio.

Salzburg have also become, in the eyes of many fans, nothing more than a feeder club for Leipzig, with many key players being transferred from Austria to Germany. Since Leipzig’s first season in the 2.Bundesliga, ten players have made the switch, notably including Stefan Ilsanker, Naby Keïta and Dayot Upamecano. This development has caused much annoyance for fans of Salzburg, but is a common practice in modern football, with Chelsea’s long-standing relationship with Vitesse Arnhem being the most prominent example.

The different Red Bull projects have managed varying degrees of success, but they have all succeeded in bringing the question marks of commercial interests in football to the forefront of public discussion. Money in football is inevitable. It has become an essential part of the way the game is run and it appears likely that it will be a continuing trend. Clubs will continue to sell their stadium naming rights and shirt sponsors to the highest bidder regardless of any extraneous factors, but the controlling interest of a commercial giant like Red Bull has created a whole different set of questions that need to be addressed.

With the next step for Leipzig being domestic success and potentially European glories, the distaste in which they are held by opposing fans is only likely to grow. For Red Bull, this just comes as part of the territory. They never entered the world of football in order to win fans and entertain the watching public, it was always and clearly a marketing campaign. It is why Red Bull are not bothered by the protests. Every negative article written about one of the Red Bull clubs is merely free advertising for their brand. And any press is good press, right?

BY MICHAEL GALLWEY